Joe Louis
Joe Louis portrait by Besty Graves Reneau via cliff1066tm via Flickr

He’s a winning name for a son.

Thanks to SJ for suggesting Kemp as our Baby Name of the Day.

Kemp has a preppy, family-name feel, appropriate for combinations like William Andrew Kemp Hamilton IV.

But his roots are far more rough and tumble.  Back in the day when kings held their thrones by pure military might, the King’s Champion was no mere ceremonial post.  Should anyone challenge the right of the king to rule, the champion was to fight on the regent’s behalf.

The title literally comes from the word for fighter – the Old English cempa, borrowed from the Latin campionmen – one who fights on a field of combat, a campus.  (The Italians still use the term campo, but strictly for fields of a non-confrontational nature.)  Our word champion derives from the same roots.  While it isn’t obvious in 2012, Kemp is simply an older form of champion, retaining his meaning and all of his luster.

Kemp, then, was somewhere between an occupational surname and an honorary one.

The most famous kemps have not answered to the surname.  Instead, in 1066 Robert Marmion was named champion.  Marmion and his successors would don full armor at each new king’s coronation.  In the fourteenth century, Sir John Dymoke picked up the mantle.  Over time the role evolved into a mostly ceremonial one.  I’m in love with the Joe Louis pic used in this post, but strictly speaking, it has been ages since a kemp actually served as a combatant in defense of a king.  Still, the idea is a romantic one.

There are a few other possible origins for Kemp:

  • It could be an occupational surname for someone who grew or wove hemp.
  • It’s also possibly related to the place name Kempen, used in Germany and the Netherlands.  At least one of these places clearly traces its name to the same roots as the Italian campo – fields – and ultimately relates back to the same soup from which Kemp arose.

There have been dozens upon dozens of notable people wearing Kemp as a surname, including:

  • In the 1400s, John Kemp was the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England.
  • William Kemp was an actor known for appearing in Shakespeare’s early productions.
  • Matt Kemp plays for the LA Dodgers.

In the sixteenth century, an Indian king called Kempe Gowda I founded Bangalore.  Today it is India’s answer to Silicon Valley, a major international IT hub.  Back then, there was a fort and a temple.  His name is very much alive in the modern city, with awards and places named in his honor, and talk of re-naming the airport after him.  I’m stumped as to the origins of Kempe Gowda’s name, but it does lend a certain international portability to Kemp.

Despite this, Kemp is quite rare in the first spot – he’s never placed in the US Top 1000, and was given to fewer than five boys in 2011.

This isn’t necessarily a problem.  He promises to fit in just fine with boys called Cole and Cade.  Kemp has quite a bit of spirit, and remains distinctively different, too.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Heh, heh, Julie, I was just thinking “I need ice cream now!” Kemp’s sells ice cream here in Nebraska, and it just makes me hungry. It seems to be on trend though, and I could see it catching on once it’s discovered.

  2. Hhhmm… I don’t know. This name doesn’t resonate with me. It doesn’t flow, and it makes me think of camp, kent, kept, etc…

    It’s sad that the “request a name” pahe isn’t working 🙁

  3. Don’t forget Jack Kemp, the former NFL quarterback turned politician. Kemp was Bob Dole’s running mate during the 1996 presidential election.

    Kemps is an dairy brand in Minnesota. It’s everywhere and they sponsor the Twins, the State Fair and Grandma’s Marathon. The brand is so prevalent here, I hadn’t realized it wasn’t better known outside of the region. So as far as a baby name, Kemp is really unusable here… especially since their slogan is “Kemps It’s the Cows.”

    1. That’s right! Forgot about Dole/Kemp. As for the ice cream, while it hasn’t hurt Ben, I can see that Kemp would give parents pause!

      1. I grew up in Jack Kemp’s congressional district, so he was my first thought, too. Also, there’s a Kempsville area in Virginia Beach.

  4. Meh. All I hear are hemp, camp, kept, etc. I do like that it’s rare while being easily spelled and pronounced and boasts a cool history.

  5. I don’t care much for Kemp. It has an interesting history, but it sounds too much like camp and kept for me.

  6. Ages ago I went to summer camp with a boy called Kemper. I was struck by his name and have, obviously, never forgotten it. I think it must be related to Kemp so I love having the back story now.